Sally Field writes about abuse, #MeToo moments and career crises in her new memoir “In Pieces,” but the biggest hurdle was dangling modifiers.
Drawing on “boxes and boxes” of journals and letters, Field worked on the book for seven years. No one else saw it until last November, when she shipped it to her literary agent, who sent it to publishers, with Grand Central snapping it up. Then, “the real work” began.
“The copy editor would come in and say, ‘You know, you’re going to have to fix those dangling modifiers.’ I wouldn’t have known a dangling modifier if you put a gun to my head!” recalled the two-time Oscar winner (for 1979’s “Norma Rae” and 1984’s “Places in the Heart”) in a recent phone interview.
“There were some egregious grammatical errors and the discussion was whether my errors should stay, because it was better that way, or they needed to be corrected. You’re trying to create rhythm with your language and then they point out the dangling modifiers and you’re like, ‘But who cares?’ ”
Any modifiers that still dangle are not noticeable in the finished book, which brings Field to St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater on Oct. 23 for a sold-out installment of the Talking Volumes series. She identifies it as a memoir, not an autobiography, because she omits many things, including her much maligned second Oscar speech, 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire” and the late-career stage work that will take her to London next year for Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” Instead, she focuses on something a therapist urged her to do: connecting the fragments of her life.
“It became my confidante, my best friend, my companion,” she said of the project. “I slowly grew from wondering if I would have the endurance to write a couple hours a day to being annoyed if anything interrupted and took me away from the world I was trying to create. I guess I always have loved words, but spending time with words makes you realize all the times that words on a page have taken you places you never thought you would go.”
The first quarter of the 416-page book is about her childhood, much of it spent with a stepfather who sexually abused her, stuntman Jock Mahoney, and a mother she thought could have prevented the abuse. “In Pieces” swirls in better-known parts of Field’s life: her marriages, her relationship with Burt Reynolds, her battle to be taken seriously in a business that identified her with the silly 1960s and ’70s sitcoms “Gidget,” “The Flying Nun” and “The Girl With Something Extra.” But its through line is the subject she and her mom didn’t discuss until shortly before Margaret Field’s 2011 death.
Field recounts the painful conversation when she revealed details of the abuse and learned that her mother was haunted by what she knew. Although the cover of “In Pieces” juxtaposes a youthful glamour shot of the author with a present-day one — much like Lauren Bacall’s classic “By Myself” — fans expecting a chatty Hollywood biography will be surprised to find a revealing and raw book.
Reaching her hand out
“I was always thinking that I could change my mind at every moment up to when it was published: ‘Thank you, guys. It’s flattering, but let’s just sit with this a while longer,’ ” said Field, who did not use a ghost writer. “But I guess I always felt that to sit in a room and write this just for myself — for eight years now — is like talking to yourself. This really was a communication I wanted to have with more than just myself.
“In the best of all worlds, that’s what the arts are supposed to be. I am reaching my hand out to present myself and, hopefully, will get a hand back in from readers.”
Field, 71, has created acclaimed stage work and workshopped scenes with fellow performers in Actors Studio classes for decades. (To write the book, she marked up drafts with questions, just like she does scripts, and used exercises that help actors recall past emotions.) So she has plenty of experience in front of audiences.
And she interacts with the public on an entertaining Twitter account, although youngest son Sam Greisman urged/ordered her to take a break in February, after she attempted to use Twitter to snag him a date with figure skater Adam Rippon (the Olympic bronze medalist and her son are now pals, she notes with satisfaction).
But Field has rarely met fans face-to-face. So she is curious to find out what attendees will be curious about at Talking Volumes.
“I don’t know,” said Field, who begins most of her answers with that phrase, as if taking a moment to organize her thoughts. Judging from “In Pieces,” recognizing what she doesn’t know and then knuckling down to learn it has served Field well throughout her life: as a mother, as an actor and as a writer.
“I’m looking forward to it, though, more than these in-depth interviews I’m doing, because it really will be this big, faceless, dark audience that I’m finally meeting on this book tour,” she continued. “The only part of it that I’m not looking forward to is being on an airplane every day. I’m not a good flier. I try to Zen through it, but I get really irritated at the gruff security people who have to go through every bit of your carry-on.”
‘Flooded with feelings’
One subject sure to come up is Reynolds, her co-star in “Smokey and the Bandit” and three other movies, as well as her on-and-off lover for five years in the 1970s and ’80s.
Reynolds comes off badly in the book, seeming uninterested in her needs and jealous of the direction her career began to take with “Norma Rae” in 1979. Field has said she’s glad Reynolds did not read the book, which hit stores days after his death Sept. 6, because it would have hurt him.
“I’ve been flooded with feelings and nostalgia and memories,” said Field, who had not spoken with Reynolds in three decades. “He did not like to be physically incapable — he was always such a physical presence — and I felt like his physicality had been hampered. So part of me is glad that he’s not suffering.”
At that point in the conversation, an assistant knocked on Field’s door to signal her next phone interview, and she raced through several talking points: The play in London. “Maniac,” the psychedelic Netflix series with Emma Stone and Jonah Hill that she’s curious to see, now streaming. (“None of us had any idea when we were making it what it was.”) More worries about air travel.
By the time you read this, Field will have been coping with TSA agents for the better part of a month. Having given up her journal during the intensive writing process, Field said she will be journaling on tour, which may mean her agent is right when she says the actor-turned-memoirist has another book in her.
In fact, it’s hard to tell if Field’s final comment is meant to accentuate the bright side of spending more than a month flying around the country or to reference the stories she’ll gather from the people she meets, stories that could help her with book No. 2:
“I’d better at least get some mileage out of it, right?”